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BLOG: Policies of the Past: Computer Literacy Project

It’s election time and politicians on all sides are out in force to win your vote in one of the most unpredictable political contests in a generation. As the debate intensifies, our chief executive Caroline Norbury has been taking a look back at some of the most significant policy interventions to have made a real difference to the UK’s creative industries over the last few decades. 

So far in this series we’ve looked back at the establishment of Channel 4 and the National Lottery. In this third blog we examine the humble Computer Literacy Project (CLP) which launched back in 1982 and arguably laid the foundations for our IT, games and digital media industry success to date.

The Computer Literacy Project

The CLP, which received significant support from across government and the BBC, was a bold and imaginative initiative to radically change the way people in the UK looked at and used computers. Its origins can be traced back to a Manpower Service Commission report for, what is now called, the Department for Work and Pensions. The commission was a non-departmental public body with a remit to co-ordinate employment and training services in the UK and help ensure the future workforce could meet the evolving demands of industry in a fast-changing world.

The commission’s report in the early 1980’s came at a time when advances in microprocessor technology were accelerating rapidly and the first home computers were becoming more affordable. The report’s authors quite rightly identified that IT technologies had the potential to radically change both the economy and society. However, when they looked into public attitudes to computing, they found that dis-interest and anxiety about IT use were rife. They also found that the IT policies of competitor economies; particularly across the pond in the USA; seemed far more advanced than our own. 

The report made a series of recommendations to policymakers on how to help people be better equipped for a new digital world. Education was critical in achieving this, but meaningful progress meant efforts were needed to not just teach people how to use a computer but, crucially, to understand how they work too.

Soon after the report was published, the BBC, in partnership with hardware developer Acorn Computers, released the ‘BBC Micro’ personal computer – known to many as the Beeb. The BBC also broadcast and published a whole range of supporting resources to help educate the masses in computer technology. 

This included producing the popular TV show ‘The Computer Programme’ which showed viewers step-by-step how to code their own programs. To make the subject more fun and engaging, this usually meant demonstrating how to make simple computer games, with users given (quite laborious) instructions in how to manually code the game into the computer.

The delivery of the CLP was well timed, with the Department for Education simultaneously introducing a new IT curriculum and teacher training project. The Department for Industry also designated 1982 ‘The Year of Information Technology’. Over three years, the government pumped over £15 million into teacher training and curriculum development and, with government backing, the BBC Micro was rolled out to Schools through the ‘Computers in Schools’ programme. The then minister for industry and information technology, Kenneth Baker MP, set his department the objective of ensuring that every secondary school had at least one BBC micro by the end of 1982.

This innovative and integrated government/broadcaster drive to boost computer literacy and change individual perceptions of IT was undoubtedly a huge success. Innovation charity Nesta praised the initiative in their 2012 report ‘The Legacy of the BBC Micro’, stating that “The CLP was undoubtedly a success for the BBC; millions of viewers watched the TV programmes, hundreds of thousands of users bought the machine”.

The CLP is now widely credited with laying the foundations for the emergence of the UK games industry and as being a major contributing factor for helping the UK get a competitive advantage in the digital media space over other countries in those early years. By helping people learn how to build as well as use software, great strides where achieved in up-skilling people for the new digital world. It’s unlikely that household name UK titles like 'Grand Theft Auto', 'Tomb Raider', 'Fable', or the wider industry, would be around today if it hadn’t been for that integrated policy push to improve computer literacy.

Computer Literacy Today

Somewhere along the line, it seems the lessons of the CLP and the reasons it was needed got lost. During his hard-hitting 2011 Mactagart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt commented that the UK education curriculum “…focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

In recent years, the importance of equipping the future workforce with the necessary skills needed to forge ahead in the digital economy have come to attention once again. Shortly after the last general election in 2010, Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey MP asked Alex Hope, CEO of VFX studio, Double Negative ('Inception', 'Interstellar', 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1') and games industry legend (and Creative England Board member) Ian Livingston CBE, to undertake a review of the skills needs of the UK’s video games and visual effects industries. Their report, Next Gen. did just that, setting out a blueprint for change aimed at government, industry and educators.

In the report, Livingstone commented that: “The games industry is highly competitive and the industry needs the best talent with hard skills: world-class computer scientists and artists. The education system is failing to produce the talent of the calibre required. There is a generation of young people who are passionate about playing games, yet they don’t know that a development industry is well established in the UK, or which subjects they need to pursue a career in the industry”.

There are now encouraging signs of a cross-party consensus and recognition of the importance of computer literacy to our creative industries and wider economy. Somewhat echoing 1982, 2014 was designated ‘The year of Code’ by the government and in September, coding was introduced to the school timetable for every child aged 5-16 years old, making the UK the first major G20 economy in the world to implement this on a national level. 

In a further throwback to 1982, the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, recently unveiled the broadcaster’s Make It Digital initiative, announcing that the corporation, alongside a host of tech partners (including Google, Samsung and Microsoft) will give away a free ‘micro bit’ coding devices to every 11-year-old in the country!

Hall commented: 

"This is exactly what the BBC is all about - bringing the industry together on an unprecedented scale and making a difference to millions… Just as we did with the BBC Micro in the 1980s, we want to inspire the digital visionaries of the future. Only the BBC can bring partners together to attempt something this ambitious, this important to Britain's future on the world stage."

It seems policymakers, educators and the Public Service Broadcasters are all taking bold, imaginative and innovative steps to help improve the UK’s computer literacy. What policies might the next government introduce to build on this momentum and pave the way for our future digital success?

Click here to watch the first ever episode of the BBC’s ‘The Computer Program’(1982) and click here to make ‘Pong’ - the first videogame in history.

Follow Caroline Norbury on Twitter.

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